Churros y Chocolate

February 26, 2017

Have you ever tried pickled mussels? I have. Once was enough…

Upon landing in Madrid around 6pm on the 23rd, I found myself going by bus, train and on foot to arrive at my AirBnb which was a ways out of the city. A quick stop during the walk, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, left me with my first Tapas experience.

After ordering a glass of wine (options in most places were red, white or blush), I received my drink along with a plate of what appeared to be pickled tomatoes, onions, peppers and mussels. Seeing as how it was 7pm, it was well before the typical Spanish dinner time of 8pm or later, so ordering additional food was not an option. I devoured the items, ordered another glass of wine and, again, it came with an additional snack. This time some sort of fried bread, filled with a mixture that I’m quite certain I’ll never be able to identify. The best surprise came in the bill which amounted to $2.50 for my two glasses of wine and tapas.

Welcome to Madrid!

Pickled mussles with a lovely $1.25 glass of wine

It was not until the next morning that I found out it’s incredibly common that any drink served in a restaurant comes with a tapas of sorts — anything from popcorn to Spanish quiche to olives. Every restaurant is different but I failed to ever come across a location where a snack was not offered with each round of drinks. Amazing!! Especially for a traveler on a budget.

My first morning, I joined in on a 10am free walking tour from Sandeman’s and was pleasantly surprised with the amount of information and territory covered over the three hour walk. Our tour consisted of hearing the history and seeing the sites of;

  • Plaza Mayor
  • Royal Palace of Madrid
  • Almudena Cathedral
  • The Muslim Walls of Madrid
  • Plaza de la Cruz Verde
  • Plaza del Sol
  • Mercado de San Miguel (see below)
  • Restaurant Botin Horno de Asar

Overall it was a great experience and gave me two invaluable things — an understanding of Madrid’s intricate layout, and a quickly formed friendship with Michela from Milan.

Michela enjoying her strawberries near the Royal Palace

Michela and I explored, ate, and drank our way through Madrid for most of four days and I am incredibly grateful for her uncanny sense of direction, zest for historical sites, and free lessons on Italian fashion and how I can attempt to achieve it. The immediate take aways that I should “never, ever do” when traveling in Europe include (of which she mentioned I’d already committed three);

  • Rolling up or cuffing my jeans…my friends at home would’ve told me the same
  • Wearing Lululemon leggings in public (unless going to the gym)
  • Wearing filp flops anywhere except in the sand, on a beach. Period.
  • Drinking a cappuccino any time during or after lunch. Apparently no milk in one’s coffee after 11am is the Italian way.

Italians: 1, Rachel: 0

A clear highlight for both of us was coming across the infamous Chocolateria San Gines where I experienced the indescribable joy of dipping a hot churro into a thick chocolate sauce. Between those bites and the sips of my cappuccino, I was quite certain I might never stop eating. Eight churros and a 2-hour stomach ache later, it was back to walking the streets for hours.

Chocolate, Cappuccino and Churros at Chocolateria San Gines

Another memorable part of my time in Madrid came from a Tapas and Wine Tour through a company called Gourmet Madrid. I would recommend this tour to anyone who finds themselves in Madrid as our guide did an exceptional job of introducing us to four local Tapas Bars where we ate and drank locally sourced and lesser known traditional items. When I return, I’ll be sure to make each of these stops part of my visit;

  • El Abuelo — garlic shrimp, gambas al ajillo, garlic shrimp! You will understand why I had two helpings and make sure to pair it with the Vermouth on tap, coming out of Andalucia, Spain.
  • Restaurante Taberna Parilla — do not leave without enjoying the Jamón Ibérico. After roasting for hours it absolutely melts in your mouth.
  • Casa Gonzalez — the home of all things meat and cheese!
  • Mercado de San Miguel — just do it. Right now. Mozarella counters with every variety and combination possible, cappuccinos dusted with cocoa powder, fresh fillets of fish flown in that morning, stunning flowers, tostas to end all tostas, and every mouth-watering item imaginable in between…
Mercado de San Miguel

Should you want to explore the city’s culinary innovators, there are many places to pick from depending on your mood and price point. Start here;

I suppose after four days in Madrid, I found that the city was exactly like chocolate y churros. While the churros were not incredibly unique on their own, there was something about the combination with the chocolate that made the experience truly exceptional. Likewise, Madrid at first glance was beautiful yet simple. But as you dive into streets that wind and intersect in chaotic angles and patterns, you start to see the pieces that make it unique. You taste garlic shrimp at El Abuelo that they’ve been making for over 100 years. From the Royal Palace, you gaze out at Casa de Campo which is four times the size of Central Park and takes 45 minutes to cross by cable car. You listen to a sad yet captivating piece by a solo spanish guitarist next to the Temple of Depot. Then you experience the passion of the authentic Tablao Flamenco dancers at Las Carboneras in a way that leaves you almost breathless.

Tablao Flamenco at Las Carboneras

When all these elements combine, just like chocolate y churros, you find yourself experiencing a city that is eclectic, romantic, subtle and ultimately timeless. I look forward to the day I return to the city so perfectly blending history and modernity.

Taken near Plaza de la Via
Amazing chaos at centuries old El Rastro market